The most challenging journey of this entire trip (and probably one of the most challenging I’ve ever tackled in my life) came on Tuesday of our third week here in the west of Ireland. Our class woke up bright and early and hiked to the peak of the highest peak in all of Ireland, the Holy Mountain of St. Brandon, just twenty minutes or so outside of Dingle. The mountain is named for St. Brendan, and is still included in Irish Catholic pilgrimages today. Over the course of about five hours, our class made the trek from the bottom of the mountain up the craggy ridges and slopes to the foggy peak, 950 feet high and marked by a white cross.
The outset of our journey seemed promising—the sun shone on the base of the mountain and a light breeze blew off the nearby sea. Many of us shed our jackets and sweatshirts in anticipation of the cardio to come as we began the hike. Unfortunately the steep climb and quickly thinning air soon took its toll upon our burning calves and lungs. To be honest, I had not fully considered the implications of climbing the highest peak in Ireland when I was preparing for the trip. Rather than the light sneakers and unlined jacket that I had chosen to wear that morning, I would have been much more prepared with full hiking boots to ward of the swampy mud puddles the covered the mountainside and my knee-length puffer jacket to guard against the wind, which legitimately blew a few students of their feet at some points.
The higher we climbed, the stronger the gale-like winds blew, and the thinner and rockier the trail became. We took quite a few breaks to catch our breath and take shelter from the wind for a few moments behind larger rocks. As we paused with just 75 feet or so left to climb, our guide raised his voice above the shrieking wind to warn us that this would be the most difficult part of the journey. This part of the mountain was often covered in cloud, as it was now, impairing vision, and the “trail” was quite steep and covered in rocks. We often had to use our hands to pull ourselves up from one rock to another. It was difficult to be sure, and a bit scary at times. But when we reached the top and stood around the sturdy white cross the marks the end of the Irish Catholic pilgrimage, looking out over the entire Dingle Peninsula through the foggy lens of cloud-cover, I felt a huge sense of accomplishment, despite my numb fingers and toes.
From visiting Yeats’ Tower in Kiltarten and climbing in the rain to the top of a Celtic fort at the cliffs of Dun Angus to listening to Professor Conner recite poetry as we sauntered through the grounds of Lady Gregory’s Coole Park, our second week in Dingle has certainly been a whirlwind of travel. We visited, watched, ate, met, read about and encountered countless individuals and locations this week along with holding regular classes. However, despite our cyclone of activity, one charming individual stood out to me — Brother Seán, who led us on a full day theology tour of the Dingle Peninsula. Holy Wells, deserted monastic sights, ancient sanding stones, castles — we saw it all. But Brother Seán himself was probably the most memorable part of the day. He is a self-proclaimed madman who is passionate about Irish theology and spirituality, very smart, and quite enthusiastic about sharing his knowledge with us. He insists that the best way to live life is through “conscious sensorial contact with nature,” and proved it throughout the day as he came upon local flora that was safe to eat and passed around the leaves, insisting we taste them. Admittedly they were, for the most part, delicious.
When we came upon the first site, a holy well associated for centuries with John the Baptist, Brother Seán told us how visitors from all over the world journey to this well to drink or bless themselves with the water. (He also encouraged us to drink from the water, which again tasted lovely.) He then insisted we all march clockwise around the well nine times (three sets of three), a ritual that sets the self “in tune with nature” because three is a complete number and the route of the sun is clockwise. The water from the well is apparently very good for knee problems, so I’m expecting that I will not be plagued at all by sore knees next basketball season.
Brother Seán filled our day with lessons and laughter, and by late afternoon we began to grow weary. But if anything, he seemed more invigorated to push onward. He re-energized us when he took us to one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. We walked down a hill to the very edge of the Dingle peninsula — sandy limestone cliffs that drop almost straight down into the Atlantic Ocean; nothing but a few islands between ourselves and thousands of miles of cold grey water. It was freezing and incredibly windy, but Brother Seán reported that he comes and sits at this spot often, and it relaxes him. He implored us to sit alone on a section of cliff for fifteen minutes in complete silence. He was correct — it was an incredibly rejuvenating experience, and we were more than ready to continue our tour afterwards. Brother Seán is a captivating individual, and I hope that I can claim to have half as much energy and passion when I am his age.
A Celebration of Storytelling
On Tuesday of our first week in Dingle, my class visited the Blasket Islands Interactive Center — essentially a museum depicting life upon the Great Blasket Island. Though now deserted, this largest member of the Blasket Islands was once home to a small fishing village whose residents lived a very primitive life up until the beginning of the 20th century. It was at the Blasket Island Museum that I came upon a statue from which I divulged the importance of storytelling, both presently and historically, to Irish culture. The statue was inspired by a passage from The Islandman by Tomas Ó’ Crohan in which he describes women congregated about a Holy Well. Upon first glance, the statue appeared unimpressive and unaesthetic. The artist had utilized copper-colored metal to erect the statue and had chosen not to construct the well around which the women were standing. Similarly, their bodies were abstractly made, one or two not even appearing to have human form. Yet as I read the passage from which the artist took inspiration, I realized the underwhelming nature of the artwork was purposeful. Ó’ Crohan noted that the women were garrulously gossiping about the well such that their “voices drowned out the voice of the King and the sound of the sea.” The unremarkable features of the statue, along with the absence of the well in the work, emphasize that the focus is the storytelling and renders the women and their location less significant — it is what they are doing, not who or where they are, that is important. By swapping stories, the women are both perpetuating and preserving their culture — it crucial to who they are, and thus their bodies are only half formed while they are in the midst of their stories.
The simplicity of the celebration of storytelling led me to realize the magnitude with which stories had defined our first week of class. From listening to Irish ballads that preserve traditional folklore and hearing locals tell stories in pubs, to sitting for a delightful hour-and-a-half listening to the Monsignor of the church where our classes are held relate tale after tale of his life’s work, stories are more than prevalent in this small Western town. There is almost a hallowed attitude towards the stories that preserve the past and create community. As a rising senior, I consistently feel pressure in Virginia to look to the future and figure out what it holds. But I have discovered in the quaint town of Dingle that is just as important, if not more so, to remember where you have been as it is to know where you are going.